It never ceases to amaze me how front-projection display quality continues to progress, while simultaneously dropping in price. Even the normally premium-priced line from Sony now has a very attractively-priced 1080p resolution SXRD projector, the recently introduced VPL-HW10, which starts the line just below the VPL-VW60. The new VPL-VW70 replaces the venerable "Ruby," or VPL-VW100, introduced a couple of years ago. Carrying a list price of $3,500, the VPL-HW10 is the least expensive SXRD Sony has yet introduced. It is not just a re-badged VPL-VW60 either. In fact, the new HW10 is superior in performance in some aspects to last year's entry-level projector. It would appear that Sony pared down some of the pricier features of last year's VPL-VW60 in favor of bumping up the performance level a little bit. This entry-level SXRD projector produces good pictures at an unprecedented price point, at least for Sony.
The VPL-HW10 is the smallest of what I would call a family line in terms of design. All of the VPL-HW10's larger siblings share the same basic look. Measuring roughly 16 inches wide by seven inches high and 18 inches deep, while weighing just 22 pounds, the HW10 has a relatively small foot print. In fact, it is almost exactly the same size and weight as its bigger brother, the VPL-VW60. The VPL-VW70 and VW200 are very similar in design to the HW10, but significantly larger and heavier. My review sample came in a black glossy finish; I believe there are no other choices. A sexy curvature with a rounded top and a lens centered on the chassis give it a sleek and symmetrical look. All of the connectivity, including the A/C power and the On/Off, Menu, Input and four-way arrow keys for menu navigation, are on the right side of the projector when floor-mounted and the left side if flipped upside-down for ceiling-mounted configurations.
The remote control is nearly identical to the VPL-VW60 from last year, and is well laid-out and designed. I was pleased to find that it is fully backlit, making it easier to tweak in a dark home theater environment. While it has direct access keys to all the picture modes, as well as the brightness and contrast controls, it would be beneficial to custom installers if it had direct access keys to the inputs as well. The remote is also ergonomically designed, with the key functions all above the center of the unit, making thumb reach to the menu, four-way directional arrows, Wide Mode and picture adjustments easily achievable. I would recommend they take the Reset key just to the right of the up arrow off of the next-generation unit, as it is a recipe for mistakenly resetting the projector.
As I mentioned in the opening of the review, it would seem Sony has opted to pare down some of the features that are costly to manufacture, and to enhance picture quality and performance instead. Zoom, Focus, and Lens shift (both vertical and horizontal) are now all manual at the projector. On the step-up VPL-VW60, all of these features are electronic, which means you can size, focus and shift the picture while being right up at the screen. This makes the task of initial set-up easier and less time-consuming. As with all front projectors, and in fact all HDTVs, there are some features that are useful and some that are detrimental to picture quality.
Horizontal, as well as vertical, lens shift aids greatly in aligning the projector properly to the screen. Unfortunately, these controls are manual at the projector rather than electronic from the remote, as mentioned earlier. This simply means you will need a little more time to get these adjustments right, as you will have to go back and forth from the projector to the screen, unless you have another person to help you.
One of the most useful features in improving picture quality is the Panel Adjust feature, which allows you to correct minor panel alignment problems. It is very much like red and blue static convergence controls on older CRTs. You have horizontal and vertical controls for red and blue that work mainly on the center of the screen, but to a lesser degree also correct misregistration at the edges of the screen. I used this feature on my review sample. It definitely tightened up the picture and made it sharper, as there were both horizontal and vertical misalignment problems on red and blue. This is an impressive feature, one that you would not expect to find in a projector at this price point.
Of course, there are the obligatory selectable color temperatures, which include High, Middle, Low and Custom temperatures that have controls for calibration of the grayscale. All the same picture modes that Sony has had in all of their SXRD projectors are on board. Dynamic, Standard, Cinema, and three User Picture Modes provide some flexibility in fine-tuning the picture. Truth be told, most of them are of little use in a home theater application. I used Standard, because I found Cinema to be too dull and Dynamic to be way too overdriven and garish-looking. Unfortunately, the RCP feature that should be a utility for correcting the primary and secondary colors is still essentially broken. I have been reporting on this feature since it was introduced some years ago. While it is a good idea, it had been implemented incorrectly. The manual will tell you otherwise, but the fact is that any manipulation of RCP will adversely impact color decoding, which most definitely significantly impacts the picture in a negative way. I experimented with it by first selecting the Normal Color space for the most accurate color of the primaries before adjustment, and then attempted to correct the Red primary with the RCP feature. I was able to get red closer to the ATSC specification but, as I suspected based on previous models, it destroyed the color decoding, forcing me to shut off the RCP. As a result, I must recommend you leave the RCP off. This is a problem that I see with most of the CMS (Color Management Systems) on the market. The right way to do it is to simply have a mode that has the correct color gamut in it in the first place. There are very few projectors with this kind of accuracy that are not stratospherically expensive. One is the Samsung SP-A800B, which carries a list price of $10,000. Another more affordable option is the soon to be released Epson Pro Cinema 7500UB, which I had a hand in designing, selling for about $5,000.
One of the big controversies with lamp-based projectors is whether or not to use the Auto-Iris setting. Some people argue that you get a higher contrast ratio when you use it, which is true. However, it is my contention that you should not use it, as it turns white level (contrast) and black level (brightness, which controls the dark part of the picture) into a moving target, and this outweighs the advantage of the increase in contrast ratio. The problem is that none of them are fast enough to keep the eye from seeing the changes, even with regular program material. In the VPL-HW10, the Cinema Black P
ro menu has both the Iris settings and controls and a Lamp setting, with a choice of High or Normal. I opted for High, which will be necessary with all but the smallest screens. This projector's light output is limited, as evidenced by the fact that I got only 11 footlamberts on my relatively small 80-inch wide Stewart Filmscreen Grayhawk RS screen. I also selected the Manual setting for the Iris setting and left it at 50 in the middle of the range. This produced good blacks and a stable picture, with White and Black levels remaining correct. If you select an Auto Iris setting, these parameters will change, depending on how bright or dark the content of the picture is, which I don't recommend for the reasons stated above. Connection options are fairly comprehensive for an entry-level projector. It has two HDMI inputs, one set of component video inputs, a 15-pin VGA-style RGB input, one S-Video and one composite video input. I was also pleased to find an RS-232 control port, a feature that custom installers need to program a component's functions into a sophisticated touch panel remote control system like a Crestron or an AMX.
Television and Movies
I started my evaluation by selecting the Standard picture mode and the Low Color temperature; the latter was quite close to the broadcast standard color temperature of D6500 Kelvins. Since the Normal Color Space setting is much closer to the ATSC specifications for the primary colors of Red, Green and Blue than the Wide setting, I naturally selected it as well for a starting point. The Blue primary is rarely a big issue on products like this and the Sony HW10 is no exception to that. However, Red and Green are often far from correct, and although the red and green primaries are closer to the ATSC specification than its larger, more expensive cousin, the VPL-VW60, I did find myself wishing I could correct them. Since the RCP feature doesn't work well, as I stated in the feature section, I was unable to do so.
Blacks were compelling and deep, if not perfect. There was also precious little noise in very dark material. Video processing is reasonably good, but not perfect by any means, so that mating it with an outboard processor like a DVDO Edge would yield a better picture. The opening scenes of the Blu-ray version of Blade Runner (Warner Home Video) are good test material both for black level performance and for low-level noise issues often caused by poor video processing. The Sony handled the darkest of these with aplomb. It should be noted that Blade Runner is not a reference-grade video transfer on Blu-ray.
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Another excellent black level test comes at the beginning of Disc Two of Planet Earth (BBC Video). This disc begins with a look into caves. People parachuting into huge caves soon find themselves in a very dark environment. Once the camera gets into the darker areas of these caves, there are some extremely challenging scenes with objects and strange cave creatures seemingly floating in black space. This is the kind of scene that typically will reveal noise in blacks due to inferior video processing and/or simply uninspiring dark gray instead of inky rich blacks. The Sony handles this adeptly, with deep and clean blacks.
The biggest negative aspect of performance of the VPL-HW10 is the inaccuracy of the red and green primary colors. I have to give Sony credit, though, as they have improved them over the higher-end, more expensive VPL-VW60 that remains in the line from last year. The other area that could stand improvement is light output. All of Sony's SXRD projectors, even the top of the line VPL-VW200 are relatively low light output projectors. This means you need to choose the screen size very carefully. For the HW10, I would recommend nothing larger than 80 inches wide by 45 inches high.
Sony's new VPL-HW10 represents an incredibly good value in entry-level front projectors. Contrast ratio, by virtue of really good blacks, is quite good, and video processing is clean and smooth. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the VPL-HW10 has more accurate primary and secondary colors when in the Normal Color Space than last year's more expensive VPL-VW60, which is impressive. At $3,500, the Sony is a little more expensive than the Sanyo PLV-Z2000, which is about $2,600. I would recommend to anyone who can afford the price jump to make it. This is one hell of a performer in the category of affordable HDTV front projectors.
Reference Software: Blade Runner The Five Disc Collector's Edition (Warner Home Video), Kung Fu Hustle (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) Planet Earth (BBC Video),